How software and apps can help with reading challenges

Reading is a complex skill, and people can struggle with it in different ways. But no matter what the challenge is, chances are good that there are assistive technology (AT) apps and software that can help with that difficulty.

Here are some common challenges: 

  • Sounding out (decoding) or recognizing words

  • Understanding what you’ve read (comprehension)

  • Visually tracking the words on the page

Find out how AT apps and software can help with these reading troubles for both kids and adults. 

Trouble with sounding out (decoding) or recognizing words

People who struggle with reading often have trouble recognizing and decoding words. It can take a lot of effort for them to figure out the words. Because of that, they may also have trouble with fluency — reading at a good speed, with accuracy, and with expression.

Some apps and software programs have features that help with these challenges. One of the most popular ones is reading aloud the text (known as text-to-speech or TTS). Readers don’t have to sound out or recognize words. They can listen to the words and focus on understanding what’s read. They can also read along to practice fluency.

Features that can help with decoding and recognizing words include:

  • TTS that reads aloud accessible text (see below) with different computer voices and at different reading speeds

  • Pronunciation dictionary that corrects how TTS pronounces certain words, like names

  • Text-to-audio conversion, which creates an audio file of TTS reading aloud for listening on digital music players

  • Dictionaries and thesauri to look up words using sound or pictures

  • Display control that sets the text font, size, color, and spacing of what’s read

  • Screen masking that hides parts of the screen, which can help reduce distractions

  • Human-narrated audiobooks that are within apps and programs

Not all text on digital devices can be read aloud by TTS. The general rule of thumb is that if you can select and copy letters and words from the text and paste them into another text document and edit it, TTS will be able to read it. 

Some reading software and apps have features that can help make inaccessible text accessible. For example, they might include OCR tools. Some tools also have a “screenshot reader” that does the same with web pages.

Trouble with comprehension

Reading comprehension means being able to understand what you’ve read. There are three main reasons why people struggle with this:

  1. Trouble with decoding and recognizing words. Having to spend a lot of time figuring out words makes it hard to remember or grasp what’s read. And that impacts understanding.

  2. Not knowing the meaning of individual words. People either have to look up the definition, skip the word, or guess at the meaning. 

  3. Trouble with working memory. People have a hard time holding on to information and using it to make meaning from what they’re reading. They may get to the end of a page and not remember what they’ve read. Or have a hard time figuring out the main idea. 

Here are some features that can help with reading comprehension:

  • Reading templates to keep track of important details and facts, like digital graphic organizers

  • Colored highlighters, annotation tools, and spoken voice notes to take notes while reading

  • Dictionaries and thesauri to look up words and hear them defined, including picture dictionaries for kids

  • Translator tools that display words in the reader’s first language

  • Text leveling brings down the reading level for kids by switching out difficult words for simpler words or definitions

Trouble with visual processing

Some people have trouble with visual-spatial processing skills. People use these skills for everyday tasks, like tying shoes or reading a map. Visual processing skills also help us tell the difference between letters and numbers, like “6” and “9” or “W” and “M.”

Features that can help with visual processing include: 

  • “Visual tracking” that highlights words or sentences in color as they’re spoken. This helps readers to follow along.

  • The ability to change the text font, size, color, line spacing, and/or word spacing of what’s being read

  • Text masking, which hides text on the page except for a single line or a few lines of text

  • Screen masking, which hides parts of the screen, which can help reduce distractions

  • Page simplifiers that reformat web pages by taking away “visual clutter.” They bring the main article in its own window. There, the user can adjust font, size, and colors.

These same features are also helpful for people with dyslexia and can help with reading fluency too. 

How to find features

Ready to look for an AT tool to help with reading challenges? Many of these features are built into devices like computers, tablets, and mobile devices. So they’re free. In some cases, one tool may have multiple features that help with reading and other tasks, like writing and studying. 

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